Key Tracks: “Chum,” “Whoa”
Everyone knows what made “The Silence of the Lambs” one of the scariest films ever. Little of the movie’s horror was in the face of the viewer, but infiltrated the mind instead. And it was driven home by the powerful believability of the actors. Earl Sweatshirt’s full-length debut, “Doris,” exists in much of the same way. He was the rising star of Odd Future when the group took a sharp and sudden rise to fame in 2010, and was a promising rapper in an otherwise passable group. His mysterious disappearance and fall from the public eye left the spotlight open for Tyler, the Creator and Frank Ocean instead, both of whom capitalized on it. His first EP, “Earl,” saw brutal tales of murder and a violent life, much in the Odd Future way of over-exploitation and disgustingly perverse gore in the lyrics. It was a lot, but with Sweatshirt’s capabilities, he pulled it off.
“Doris” is just as frightening of a record. But Sweatshirt leaves the restraint of Tyler, the Creator and gets into the listener’s mind, lyrically and musically. Sweatshirt raps often about growing up without his father, and how he feels he should be angrier about it than he actually is. And he raps about dealing with drug use, a possible cause for his disappearance (he is only 19 now, placing him at 16-17 then). Sweatshirt is a conflicted man, and he easily brings his mental anguish onto the record for us all to experience. His short songs and drone music accompany an often low-key style of rapping that sounds like he might be phoning it in, but really, he is so wrapped up in his own problems that he can’t work through them well enough to deliver what fans might expect. It might be added effect, it might not be, but like watching Anthony Hopkins and Jodie Foster, it doesn’t really matter. It’s effective enough as is.
Only two of the album’s fifteen tracks stretch over four minutes. No idea sticks around long, adding to the effect of Earl spouting out ideas and stopping when he can’t find resolutions. And musically, although the albums switches handily from beats to horns, etc, there is a constant drone feeling, a slight feeling of dread hanging over it. The music is often as low-key as the rapping. A plethora of guest stars tend to keep it cool, too. RZA flies off a bit (in an entertaining way), but Frank Ocean, Vince Staples, Mac Miller and many others contribute to the album’s tone. He even keeps the asinine Tyler, the Creator from flying off the handles and (relatively) keeps his profane manner down. One of the album’s best songs is “Whoa,” the second of two tracks with Tyler, that features both of them playing it cool over a unique, vocal beat.
“Doris” is not really revolutionary, and it does jump around a little frequently. Sometimes, it’s deeply honest and affecting. Sometimes, it’s tough to follow. But it is a narrative, and a brutal telling of a man who has too many problems for someone of his age. When the audience first sees Hannibal Lecter, he is locked in his cell, in a very mentally scary shot. “Doris” is a cell for Earl, and it is an album that sticks out more in the mind than in the gut. And for this, it’s more grounded and affecting than Odd Future could ever be.
If you like this, try: “Twelve Reasons to Die (The Brown Tape)” by Ghostface Killah (2013). An alternate version of his album from the spring that adds a minimalistic production. It also has a narrative feel, though one that goes more for the gut.
-By Andrew McNally